DirecTV: We'll issue refunds for satellite package for offended NFL fans

Just how serious has the fan revolt against the NFL protests become? Paid subscribers to DirecTV’s exclusive Sunday Ticket package — which allows viewers to choose any game to watch — have begun demanding refunds. That demand has grown large enough to pressure the satellite entertainment provider to reverse its long-held policy and give the money back:

DirecTV is letting at least some customers cancel subscriptions to its Sunday Ticket package of NFL games and obtain refunds if they cite players’ national anthem protests as the reason, customer service representatives said Tuesday.

Sunday Ticket’s regular policy doesn’t allow refunds once the season is under way. But the representatives said they are making exceptions this season—which began in September—in response to the protests, in which players kneel or link arms during the national anthem.

Just who gets the benefit of this new policy? Even DirecTV isn’t quite sure:

DirecTV service representatives contacted by The Wall Street Journal had different understandings of the policy. One said refunds to those concerned about the anthem protests were only offered to subscribers with certain offers or plans. One representative said full refunds were available for those who complained about anthem protests. Another said such people could only get prorated refunds for the remainder of the season. Yet other representatives said the policy hadn’t changed and that no refunds were allowed for any reason.

However, DirecTV subscribers contacted by The Wall Street Journal showed the satellite broadcaster was offering at least some refunds.

In other words, those demanding refunds might need to call more than once to find a representative who will comply. That confusion can be easily understood in the context of DirecTV’s history on such requests, which has an unbroken record of enforcing the no-refund policy. When consumers choose that package, they get warned that the decision is irrevocable. (The same is true with other platform-independent NFL packages such as Game Pass.) DirecTV also has a long track record of hard-nosed payment demands; in full disclosure, AT&T finally concluded a decade-plus dispute between myself and DirecTV in my favor earlier this year. Under those circumstances, this policy change may take a while to propagate throughout the system.

This is a potential direct measurement of customer alienation. Ratings provide a more indirect measure, with viewing patterns sometimes interrupted by weather, elections, and other distractions, and variations could be attributed to mainly low-intensity fans of the game disengaging occasionally. The people who pay $99 to watch a sport that’s entirely free on broadcast television just to catch their favorite team are not low intensity. Those viewers form the core base of the league’s fandom, and probably buy a lot more from the NFL than just the Sunday Ticket — merchandise, game tickets, and so on. If those fans are fleeing, then the league — and DirecTV, which presumably pays the NFL a hefty fee for the exclusive on Sunday Ticket — are in serious trouble.

Of course, this assumes that the impact will be a major net loss. At least hypothetically, DirecTV might be selling more Sunday Ticket packages than it loses, in which case this will get mitigated. In practice, though, it probably doesn’t matter; if they’re agreeing to refunds for the first time, it may be in response to consumer threats to walk away from DirecTV altogether. Besides, any erosion in a base this loyal is a loss no matter how new sales are performing. DirecTV pays for exclusive rights as a way to compete against cable systems. If NFL fans no longer put value in the package, then it no longer serves as a differentiator. DirecTV will either negotiate a lower price with the league for it or abandon it altogether — either of which would cut significantly into the league’s cash flow.

How long will this fan revolt last? It could just be a response to this past weekend’s coordinated protests that will dissipate with the next week’s contests, or it might be a signal that the final straw has landed on the camel’s back. If the league and its players want to maintain the cash flow that makes most of them millionaires, they’d better get used to the idea that fans have the right to walk just as they have the right to kneel.